Cats are fastidious groomers as we all know. When a cat grooms, the tiny, hook-like structures on the tongue catch loose or dead fur which the cat then swallows. For the most part, this fur is passed through the digestive tract without incident; but some of the fur may stay in the stomach which develops into a hairball. Because this hairball must pass through the esophagus in order to be vomited up, they usually appear to be tube-like rather than round.
Long-haired cats are more likely to have hairballs as do cats that shed a lot or are compulsive groomers. A cat trying to expel a hairball will retch, gag and hack, but will usually vomit the hairball without trouble. However, problems can occur when the hairball cannot be vomited. Frequent retching, gagging or hacking without the production of a hairball, a lack of appetite, vomiting undigested food, swollen abdomen, sluggishness, diarrhea or constipation may be an indication a hairball has caused a blockage. This blockage makes it impossible for the cat to either vomit or have a bowel movement which constitutes an emergency situation. If you suspect that your cat may have a blockage, contact your veterinarian hospital immediately and speak to the veterinary assistant on duty with your concerns. There may be several options that the veterinarian will discuss with you but a severe blockage will require surgical removal.
Although you cannot prevent hairballs, you can reduce the amount and/or frequency. Home remedies such as butter or oils should not be used as they may cause other digestive problems. One of the easiest ways to reduce the amount and/or frequency is to groom your cat on a regular basis. Many cats will accept brushing or combing by their owners but those that do not can be taken to a professional groomer for brushing and a possible hair cut, especially for long-haired breeds.
There are many hairball products on the market which are actually a mild form of a laxative which will help the hairball pass through the digestive tract. Most are petroleum-based and are flavored to make them more appetizing to the cat. There are also special “hairball formula” cat food on the market which contains a high fiber formula. This formula will not only help hairballs to pass through the digestive tract, they also help to reduce shedding and can improve your cat’s coat.
Water is also important for your cats’ digestive system; be sure the water is clean, fresh and easily accessible. If you suspect that your cat is a compulsive groomer, try offering other distractions such as a new toy to play with or find one that you can play with together.
You cannot stop a cat from grooming, but you can help prevent problems associated with hairballs with simple preventive practices.